Germany’s new president won’t immediately improve German-Russian relations, but he might foster a shift in the composition of the political elites. This could have an indirect impact on Moscow-Berlin relations.
Former German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier during his visit to Russia in 2016. Photo: Kremlin.ru
Frank-Walter Steinmeier, former Foreign Minister and the candidate of Germany’s grand coalition, was elected President on Feb. 12. Even though Steinmeier is considered to follow a Russian-friendly approach, this won’t be an immediate game-changer for Russian-German relations. There are several good reasons for this assumption.
First, even though the President is the head of state, his political power is significantly limited and confined to mainly domestic issues. Second, in order to maintain his integrity and functional independency, the President steers clear of day-to-day politics, which means he doesn’t interfere with governmental decisions. Third, despite the fact that he represents the country according to international law, he must stay out of foreign policy, which is solely the government’s responsibility and, therefore, the Foreign Minister’s duty.
On the other hand, the President can affect the long-term orientation of the country. Especially given the uncertainty about the future of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) due to U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America First” policy, there is room for a strategic realignment.
It is crucial for Germany to rethink its policy towards its neighbors. Stabilizing the country and the European Union by counteracting the centrifugal forces and the shift to the right-nationalist spectrum in domestic and European politics as well as retaining a peaceful order should be at the heart of Germany’s national strategy.
This certainly includes having a good relationship with Russia. Steinmeier has been working towards this direction as Foreign Minister and although his scope of responsibility has changed, he should continue to do so as the German President.
In contrast to his predecessor, Joachim Gauck, Steinmeier is not a newcomer in the political arena and has always been drawn to international politics. As Foreign Minister he followed a moderate approach; for instance, he stood firm against critics from overseas, Europe and even from inside the administration asking for stricter sanctions against Russia following the civil war in Ukraine and the Russian intervention in Syria.
In consideration of the national interests of Eastern Europe’s EU member states and their imagined fear of Russian aggression, he made clear that closing the door on Russia is not an option. His conception of international politics is mainly relying on diplomacy whereas military force can only be seen as a last resort.
This becomes apparent regarding his criticism of the NATO military exercises in the states neighboring Russia, which he referred to as “warmongering” and “sabre-rattling,” adding that it would be "fatal to search only for military solutions and a policy of deterrence."
He has always seen himself in the tradition of former German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s “New Eastern Policy,” which aimed at "change through rapprochement" rather than isolationism and protectionism. Considered to be a “Realpolitik advocate,” he prefers pragmatism to ideological notions. This is a real asset when engaged in balancing diverse interests, but it also led to criticism due to his apparent lack of moral standards concerning his relationship with Russia and China.
In contrast to his predecessor, Steinmeier as a specialist on foreign policy could bring public debates to a more realistic approach by concentrating on matter-of-fact analysis and addressing significant interests as a driving factor of international politics. This could shape the public’s ability for a better understanding of international relations – a crucial point during a period of fake news.
Starting point of a domestic power shift
A closer examination of the election reveals the race to become Chancellor has already begun. The election of Steinmeier, a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), was no surprise but rather a tool to showcase the unity and harmony within the German government. There was no real alternative candidate. However, even though he was elected by the broad majority, about a hundred of the electoral delegates sent by the grand coalition - presumably from Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Bavaria’s Christian Social Union (CSU) - did not vote for him.
Furthermore, the fact that the center-right CDU, the largest party in the German parliament under Chancellor Angela Merkel, was not capable of nominating a candidate but went with the SPD candidate, could be seen as weakness, especially when one takes into account the upcoming federal government elections later this year.
A few months ago, nobody would have expected a serious chance of winning for the SPD, but times are changing. The nomination of Steinmeier for the German presidency came at the same time as further position changes inside the SPD’s leadership.
Former Chairman and Minister of Economic Affairs Sigmar Gabriel became Foreign Affairs Minister, but most importantly, Martin Schulz, the former President of the European Parliament and a candidate for the chancellery, took over the party’s leadership.
Schulz is well respected by German society and managed to improve the party’s poll ratings by about 10 percent in one month, resulting in the highest results in the current legislative period. Public opinion was even more significant: 50 percent of respondents said they would approve Schulz as the Chancellor while only 34 percent would support the fourth term of Merkel.
Both the SPD and CDU announced they would end the “grand coalition” after the 2017 elections and interestingly there have been talks between the left party “Die Linke,” the Green Party and the SPD to foster a possible coalition. This could be in the interests of Russia because “Die Linke” is considered to be sympathetic towards Russia and has always been skeptical about NATO’s engagement in regional conflicts.
While in the current political situation Merkel certainly is a counterbalance to Steinmeier and his moderate approach towards Russia, the next administration could take a different path.
Definitely, there are obstacles to overcome, like the Russian annexation of Crimea. And Germany has to stand with its neighboring states in Eastern Europe that fear Russian aggression. But, in hindsight, Russian-German relations have come a long way since the end of the Cold War and both countries should have a major interest in continuing this commitment to maintain a peaceful order in Europe. Steinmeier cited Egon Bahr, the architect of the “New Eastern Policy” under Willy Brandt, at the German-Russian Forum last year as a sign of Germany’s tough choices ahead: “America is indispensable, Russia is immovable.”
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.